Maybe it’s because over recent years the size of estates have grown so significantly because of the rise in property prices that we have seen a remarkable increase in cases where family members are challenging Wills or Estates (or in many instances due to the lack of a Will).
What do these cases comprise of and why:
1. Firstly, there is the usual scenario where family members have been left little or nothing at all and therefore we are being asked to examine whether there would be a claim for provision for such family members.
2. There are then the more unusual scenarios where family members perhaps have not been left anything at all in a Will and the estate has been left to what is perceived to be undeserving persons or organisations and the family members look at the question as to whether there has been any ‘undue influence’ (inappropriate pressure) brought upon the deceased to favour those individuals or organisations.
3. In certain instances family members feel aggrieved where it is often the case that Wills have been prepared by the deceased late in life or even in circumstances where the deceased may have been suffering from a serious illness. The issue that arises is whether there is any argument that the deceased did not have the relevant ‘testamentary capacity’ (mental state of mind) to enter into a legally binding Will at that material time.
4. There are some instances where Wills are being challenged because the solicitor instructed did not properly prepare the Will. An example of this perhaps would be if say the deceased had a disability such as blindness. Perhaps the way in which the Will was executed (signed) was not in accordance with the relevant formal and legal procedures and therefore if the Will is found to be invalid, because those procedures were not properly followed , then potentially a Professional Negligence claim could arise if certain beneficiaries suffer a loss.
5. There have been instances where there has been no Will and we have dealt with situations whereby a family member responsible for Administering the estate has distributed it to certain categories of members of a family and has ignored others. Perhaps these ommitted family members may not have been easily contactable or identifiable. In certain situations members of the family have been ignored because of family disputes and these categories of family members may have been entitled to a share of the estate.
6. There are also situations where an estate has been distributed to certain categories of family members—say for example brothers and sisters but because one brother/sister may have died before the deceased, perhaps that person’s share should have passed to their children. In many instances these situations become contentious.
So what is the point of all this?
Quite clearly, because the value of estates has risen so dramatically it seems that family members are looking much more carefully as to their share or potential entitlement under an estate. Whereas perhaps in previous years parties may have felt it was ‘not worth it’ nowadays it does seem far more proportionate if legal costs are to be incurred that to investigate a potential claim may result in a significant return. Whilst these situations can create significant acrimony between family members it does seem that because of the amounts involved that family members are more willing to fall out with each other and enter into disputes and this is where we have seen a significant growth in work in recent years.